The Light in the Piazza
Book by Craig Lucas

Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel

Based on the Novel by Elizabeth Spencer

Directed by Sandy Richens Cohrs

Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley

Entire contents copyright © 2012 by Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

Jennifer Poliskie as Clara Johnson and Jason Button as Fabrizio Nacarelli
 in The Light in the Piazza. Photo courtesy of As Yet Unnamed Theatre Company.

The Light in the Piazza. With a title like that, you just know you’re in for something shamelessly romantic. And you’d be right.

Created in 2003 and running on Broadway in 2005, this adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s short novel is an unusual piece of modern musical theater. There are no big dance numbers, no show-stopping 10:00 p.m. numbers, and really no truly memorable songs. Even though it is a traditional, break-into-song musical, the songs here feel more like the underscoring of a film: lovely and melodious, but never really seeming to take on a life of their own. And surprisingly, it works!

Craig Lucas’s libretto is the real driving force of the show, owing a lot to its fidelity to the source material (and more than a little influenced by the novel’s 1962 Olivia de Havilland-starring film version). It tells a sweet, only slightly tragedy-tinged story of young love and a mother’s devotion, and it had me riveted almost from the start.

It centers on three characters: Margaret Johnson (Sharon Kinnison), a devoted mother whose seeming overprotectiveness proves to be well founded; Clara Johnson (Jennifer Poliskie), her bursting-with-innocence daughter; and Fabrizio Naccarelli (Jason Buttons), a handsome shopkeeper smitten with Clara’s beauty. The three are brought together when Margaret and Clara are vacationing in Rome, and the story doesn’t play out exactly as you’d expect.

The entire cast is excellent, without a single bad performance; but it is this central trio that really drives the show and I can’t imagine better casting. Kinnison humanizes Margaret in such a way that even when you don’t yet understand her motivations, you can’t really root against her. This is a loving mother protecting her daughter, and her performance is never for a moment anything less than genuine. Likewise, Poliskie radiates naiveté and innocence, to the point your heart aches for her and you are genuinely elated when she finally finds the strength to assert herself. And Buttons is just so convincing as the lovelorn Fabrizio, it’s hard to believe the actor isn’t really Italian; his accent is flawless, and he speaks and sings in Italian for the majority of the show.

The supporting characters are also well played by some very fine actors, including Bryce Blair and Sarah Mueler as Fabrizio’s bickering brother and sister-in-law, Michael McCollum as Margaret’s distant husband (and Clara’s absent father), and Richard Ray as the patriarch of Fabrizio’s family. Andrew Pickerill has some nice moments as well in multiple roles. A very good cast, and they are all well served by Sandy Richens Cohrs’s expert direction.

The MeX Theater is challenging to set-designers, and generally the simpler the better. Gary Tipton has made very nice use of the stage, with minimal scenery that still manages to evoke the period and the setting. He also has created some lovely original paintings that are being auctioned off (see the program for more info on that).

The As Yet Unnamed Theater Company has really outdone themselves with their latest offering. Thanks to stellar performances, expert direction, and a literate script, The Light in the Piazzais an incredibly beautiful experience from start to finish.

The Light in the Piazza

Featuring Bryce Blair, Jason Buttons, Jamie Cohrs, Sandy Cohrs, Amanda Davenport, Sharon Kinnison, Michael McCollum, Sarah Mueler, Andrew Pickerill, Jennifer Poliskie, Richard Ray, and Jeanne-Marie Rogers.

November 16, 17, 23 & 24 at 8 p.m.
November 18 & 25 at 2 p.m.

The As Yet Unnamed Theatre Company

The MeX Theatre, The Kentucky Center

501 West Main Street

Louisville, KY 40202